- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

In 2001, rock ‘n’ roll was getting a kick in the pants from a bunch of bands with short names and big sounds.

What separated the Strokes from that year’s influx of “the” bands (the White Stripes, the Vines, the Stills, etc.) wasn’t just a sound (grimy and urgent) but a style. Scruffy and skinny-legged — with pipe-cleaner pants and impossibly hip shoes — the five New Yorkers were the perfect mix of uptown chic and downtown cool.

Their highly anticipated full-length debut, “Is This It?” was a mono-pop sensation. The sleepy-eyed twentysomethings were crowned the “saviors of rock” and quickly skyrocketed from hiding in dark Manhattan clubs to filling them with admirers.

Two years later, fans and critics alike held their breath as the quintet released a nearly identical sophomore follow-up, “Room on Fire.” Some begged for change while others questioned the need to alter a good thing.

Their newest release, “First Impressions of Earth,” answers both calls with a dusting of new sounds within the band’s familiar framework of fuzzy vocals and edgy guitars. Unfortunately, it does neither with much flair. Unlike the band’s first two releases, half the tracks here probably will leave listeners impatiently waiting for hooks and choruses that never materialize.

The album — by far the band’s longest, at a whopping 52 minutes — kicks off with the single-worthy “You Only Live Once,” on which guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. pair baby-faced singer Julian Casablancas’ unusually playful lyrics (“Some people think they’re always right/Others are quiet and uptight”) with cheery chords not heard since “Last Nite.”

The second track, “Juicebox,” is the album’s big surprise. Its thrasherlike riffs could have been lifted from Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” and might leave you wondering if the song is for real. (Still, it’s refreshing to hear the guys truly dig into their instruments, especially Mr. Casablancas, whose trademark gravelly voice is uncharacteristically robust throughout the track.)

Momentum is maintained in the next few songs, especially in the relationship-bemoaning “Razorblade,” which features a wavering chorus that bears a striking resemblance to that of Barry Manilow’s very un-punk hit “Mandy.”

The album goes flat from there, with many songs simply lackluster and others — such as the drunken-karaoke-sounding “15 Minutes” — total duds.

Things pick up with the last track, “Red Light,” which features some unexpected Allman Brothers Band-esque dueling guitars, but the trick will be getting listeners that far. Here’s hoping a few more spins of “First Impressions of Earth” will leave a more lasting impression.

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